New Vessel Press seems to have a special liking for these short, quiet, absorbing books that impose narrow boundaries of space, time and point of view on themselves but go deep and stay with you (I Called Him Necktie, Guys Like Me). The story is cleanly framed in the time and space constraints of the train journey – both characters comment on the sense of freedom and private space that falls on you when you sit down in a train for a long journey, the doors slide shut and you’re free to go wherever you choose in your own mind, and this is exactly what happens to them and to you as you read.
The 6.41 to Paris takes place entirely in the heads of two passengers on a train: Cécile, once a gauche and unremarkable girl, now a soignée and cluey woman who has founded an organic beauty products business that’s expanding all over France, and Philippe, once the young man all the girls wanted and now a paunchy, balding divorcé with a dead-end job in a superstore. For four months 27 years ago they were a couple; now, when they accidentally sit next to each other on the 6.41 from Troyes to Paris they pretend not to recognise each other.
Cécile is returning from a dutiful weekend spent with her querulous parents:
I wonder if there is anyone at all who knows how to look after elderly parents. Elderly but not yet bedridden. Just old and weak. And bitter.
Hers is a calm, strong voice, the voice of a woman who believes in herself and doesn’t depend on anyone, but there’s very much a feeling that this is a woman who has constructed herself, and that she isn’t yet a finished work.
Philippe, by contrast, has a flattened affect, a subdued voice that trails away into vagueness even as he tells us how his wife left him for another man:
He played video games. The perfect father. Manon was eight, Loïc was six. That was ten years ago. It all went very smoothly. For them. And for me? I don’t think about it. I go on doing what I set out to do – except that I’ve kind of lost the purpose of the journey.
At this stage it isn’t clear why he’s phoned in sick and taken the day off to go to Paris. Before we get to that, he sees that the woman he’s about to sit next to – in the only seat left – is Cécile. She doesn’t react, and he manages to convince himself she doesn’t recognise him. She does, of course. We’ve already heard her say to herself,
Oh. My. God.
That’s the set-up for a novel that’s told in the two alternating voices as Cécile and Philippe mentally revisit their brief affair and its rather sordid ending. It’s a story about the naive egotism of youth and the cross-purposes of youthful love affairs, and about the innate energy of some personalities that makes them able to use what happens to them instead of being used by it or simply going with the flow. Philippe treated Cécile badly and she used her anger to change herself; he lapsed into the fatigue and disillusionment from which he’s never, until now, woken up. But something starts to shift in both of them as they journey on, side by side, unspeaking, but each vitally engaged with the other. The tension between them is cleverly conveyed by their physical proximity and the acute awareness of the slightest movement of the other. Will they speak? Will something happen between them? You’ll have to read it to find out.
It’s a novel you can easily imagine as a film, the long-ago love affair unfurling against the background of the scenery flitting by the train windows and the silent preoccupation of all the people packed together anonymously in the carriage. Because what’s happening in Cécile and Philippe’s minds isn’t, we understand, unique to them. By middle age, who hasn’t thought, as Cécile does,
Everything goes so fast, anyway. Everything goes so fast, but twenty-seven years later, it is still there.
Yes, it is all still there, but mixed up with everything that’s happened since – with other loves, growing children, ageing parents, friendship and the loss of friends, careers, with the development of the public shell we live in, the face we turn to the outside world. It’s the material of many a longer novel that ends up having less to say.
Jean-Philippe Blondel, The 6.41 to Paris (New Vessel Press 2015) tr. Alison Anderson